Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation (II). Digital revolution and technopolitics

A city at nightAnts, courtesy of Fabien Cambi

This is a three-part article entitled Fostering non-formal and informal democratic participation. From mass democracy to the networks of democracy.

The first part deals with Man-mass and post-democracy and how democracy seems not to be maturing at all, or even going backwards due to lack of democratic culture and education. This second part deals with the Digital revolution and technopolitics and reflects about how the digital revolution might be an opportunity not only to recover but to update and transform democracy. The third speaks about what kind of Infrastructures for non-formal and informal democratic participation could be put in place.

While we are witnessing this possible exhaustion of democracy, the digital revolution has long ceased to merely affect the management of information and communications to be a vector of very deep transformations in absolutely all aspects of daily life. They do not escape to this revolution neither civic action nor democratic commitment.

There are many and controversial pros and cons on the so-called electronic democracy, the uses and abuses of the practices that we encompass as Government 2.0 or the enormous disagreement on whether the new channels of information and digital communication improve or worsen the quality of the information that arrives to the citizens, or if citizens are able to form part of more pluralistic communities or, on the contrary, they are enclosed in their own resonance chambers.

An issue that seems unquestionable to us, because it transcends the scope of democratic action, is the elimination of intermediaries for many of the collective tasks that traditionally required institutions to promote, articulate, organize, guide and resolve collective action. Or, failing that —the elimination of intermediaries— at least a radical transformation of the roles or actors that will develop these mediation roles.

We believe more than proven by the empirical evidence that the cost of participating in any area of ​​collective decision-making has been dramatically reduced. Information, deliberation, negotiation, specification of preferences, decision making in itself, evaluation and accountability. All this can now be done with significantly less material and personal costs than in the past.

Likewise, and as mentioned above, the potential to increase the benefits of participation has also increased due in part to the potential increase in participation itself, but also to the potentially much greater quantity and quality of information for the taking of decisions, the possibility of carrying out simulations, pilot tests, obtaining more and better indicators and in real time, the potential increase of the relative benefit by reducing the cost of conflict management, etc.

These potentials have been materialized in countless citizen initiatives focused on self-organization, self-management, decision-making distributed in what has come to be called for-institutions, spaces of autonomy or means of mass self-communication.

However, the wide range of opportunities offered by these spaces often takes place completely giving their back to institutions. Not only outside of them, but alien to them, when not directly challenging what was previously the natural space of these institutions or even their foundational functions, as Yochai Benkler reminds us.

Even in the case where one believes that institutions were not necessary, an orderly transition between the now hegemonic institutional space towards informal spaces of democratic participation would seem desirable.

Our bet —based on the belief that institutions have many difficult functions to replace, among them and as a priority the protection of minorities— is towards a deployment of the collective action of institutional spaces towards (also) the new informal spaces, as well as a sharing of sovereignty between these same institutions with the new actors of civic action in particular, and citizens in general.

However, we run the risk of falling into what Manuel Delgado calls citizenshism, namely, let citizens participate, but participate just and necessary. To avoid this, we propose a return of sovereignty based on putting the “means of political production” in the hands of citizens.